President Biden Proposes Government Actually Try to Create Broadband Competition

Coverage Type: 

Most Republicans and many Democrats have framed broadband much like Ronald Reagan would: Get government out of the way, remove regulations, and let too-big-to-fail incumbent providers bridge the digital divide. A favorite target is public rights-of-way—every street plus about ten feet of land on each side where utility poles or underground utility lines are located, and where internet service providers attach or bury lines and equipment that transmit internet data. Most rights-of-way are managed by local governments, and the companies in that area pay fees to compensate for using public facilities and to fund inspections. The big companies are constantly trying to shift those costs onto others, and they’ve found sympathetic ears within government to reduce these fees. But even after decades of trampling local authority over rights-of-way, there is no evidence that these “savings” have led the big incumbents to invest in better broadband infrastructure, or created competitive options most Americans want to get affordable and reliable high-speed internet access. 

Federal dollars from the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan can encourage competition, because the monopolies didn’t have the opportunity to stuff them with limitations. More communities and the federal government must be willing to put skin in the game to solve these problems now. Governments can do more than rely on public utilities and co-ops, however. One municipal broadband model is open access, which generally involves communities building the expensive parts of the broadband network and then leasing it to private or public ISPs. This approach re-creates the innovative dynamic of the dial-up era. However, it works best when the capital cost to build it is subsidized—exactly how our government finances roads. That approach roused limited enthusiasm until recently, as many more people have recognized the importance of universal access and adoption.

[Sean Gonsalves is senior reporter and editor for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. Christopher Mitchell is the director of the Community Broadband Networks Program at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.]

Biden Proposes Government Actually Try to Create Broadband Competition